The phone rang. "How would you like to catch some salmon in Alaska?" Bob, my husband’s hunting buddy chuckled. "We can fly to Anchorage for free on military planes."
Since Bud, my husband, had always wanted to visit Alaska we immediately agreed to go for two-weeks. To save money we decided to share accommodation and split the van rental fee with Bob and his wife Judy.
We new flying Space-Available (Space-A) on military planes would be a challenge as there are no scheduled flights and we have to compete for seats. But it’s free and we have the time—we’re retired we told ourselves.
We had to change planes in San Francisco to get to Anchorage. To our surprise we arrived in Anchorage in record time. Flying Space-A looked easy! We would learn the down side later.
We spent our first night at a motel in downtown Anchorage surrounded by four stately mountain ranges and the grayish glacially fed water of Cook Inlet. Upper Cook Inlet’s has a 39-foot tide and most of the beaches are treacherous as they are covered in glacial silt and sticky mud.
After loading up the rented van with food and camping gear we drove north on Highway 1 to meet with Bob’s friends Doug and Pat who live in Palmer. Pat escorted us along the beautiful fast clear flowing Little Sustina River at Hatcher Pass. The Pass is tucked in a green valley of wild flowers, fir, pine and spruce trees.
Doug took us to the glacier fed Matanuska River to catch salmon. Since the salmon run was late Doug and other fisherman caught few fish.
Visible across the river valley were snow-capped mountains and the stunning 24-mile long and two-mile wide Matanuska Glacier that advances about one foot a day.
After a good nights sleep at a Palmer hotel we bid Doug and Pat farewell and headed north to Danali National Park. We cruised through narrow valleys surrounded by the steep Talkeeta Mountains to the east and the Alaska Range to the west. The alpine meadows were dotted with yellow, white and purple flowers. The pink and purple fireweed is the most common perennial wildflower. Pat said the flowers tell how soon fall will get here by how far up the green stalk the fireweed flowers bloom.
We rounded a corner and our jaws dropped. Dominating the northwest skyline were the double peeks of the 20,330-foot high Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. It is hard to comprehend how imposing the mountain is until you see it. Since permanent snow fields cover more than 75% of the mountain she loomed like a ghost in the sky. We were 60 miles from her base. She is also visible from Anchorage 264 miles away. We felt blessed as we were told we only had a 30% chance of seeing the mountain in summer as she creates her own weather. Temperatures at the summit can plummet below -95°F with wind gusts of more the 150 miles and hour during storms.
The call to the wild echoed as we set up camp in Healy near the tall enchanted treeless Talkeena Mountains. Twenty hours of sunlight and the Chinook Wind that slapped out tent with machine-gun ferocity did not dampen our spirits.
The following morning we took an 8-hour 64-mile wildlife bus tour among the rolling tundra of Danali Park’s Thorofare Valley. The bus fell silent when we came upon a young sandy colored grizzly bear cavorting among the willows. "Wow" we exclaimed in unison when the bear trotted up the bank and crossed the road in front of us. To our delight four more grizzlies were later spotted grazing among the hills.
We left the bus and hiked up a hill at Polychrome Overlook to see the Alaska Range’s snow capped, green, blue, brown and gray bluffs. The swift whitish-gray glacial fed Toklat River wandered across the broad flat valley below. Like other glacial fed rivers the Toklat had divided into dozens of different channels as it meandered through the valley. A couple of golden eagles patrolled the distant ridge tops.
Only a portion of the base of Mount McKinley was visible from behind a veil of clouds. The mountains are so big it was easy to underestimate distance. The mountains seem close when they are actually several miles away.
The bus fell silent again when we stopped to view a female moose grazing nonchalantly in a bog.
We strolled around at Eilson Visitor Center and smiled at out good fortune as we watched dull sheep graze among the towering cliffs.
The trip was almost over when someone spotted a lynx stalking a snow shoe hare before the hare escaped.
Our next stop was the picturesque town of Seward, Alaska’s oldest and most scenic community 126 miles south of Anchorage. Seward is at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsular and is surrounded by forested mountains and glaciers.
We signed up for five days at the Seward Military Resort. Bud and I hiked an easy half-mile to Exit Glacier while Bob and Judy fished for salmon and halibut in Resurrection Bay the following morning.
Bud and I took pictures of the spectacular glacier, gazed at its maze of blue ice and felt its hard cold face. Low clouds rolled down the mountain and moved across the glacier in a thick foggy procession.
At the visitors center we learned that Exit Glacier is one of the more than 30 glaciers that flow out of the 300 square mile Harding Ice Field near Seward. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to take the 4-mile hike to view the ice field.
Bob and Judy were packing their salmon and halibut to send home when we returned to the resort. Even with rain, wind and heavy seas they said the fishing was awesome.
It was the first clear day in two weeks when we took an 8-hour boat tour to view the glaciers and wildlife in Kenai Fjords National Park.
The boat had barely left the dock when two funnels of spray indicated the presence of humpback whales. All eyes where on a whales flapping flipper when the captain stopped the boat. Suddenly one of the whales shot out of the water like a rocket. We were struck dumb, then cheered.
Porpoises gave us a thrill when they swam in the wake of the bow a few moments later.
Sea lions, harbor seals and colonies of nesting birds including Puffins, cormorants, oyster catchers and Bald Eagles dotted the island cliffs. The captain said the sea life viewing was excellent as it was the first clear day in two weeks.
About a quarter mile from Aialik a tidewater glacier the captain turned off the boat engine. "The glacier can speak for itself."
A house-size mass of ice crashed into the sea before we heard a CRACK like a shot gun shell exploding followed by a crackling sound as air escaped from the ice. Aialik Glacier is a huge blue and white river of ice that creeps downhill like a giant bulldozer carving out a broad U-shaped valley. Sailing in the park was like moving into the pages of a National Geographic.
We were not ready to leave when we returned to Anchorage to fly home.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, to our dismay, it took six more days to get a military plane back home. Each day the flight was scheduled and canceled.
We now understand why people keep returning to Alaska. The states beauty and spirit is a national treasure. We too shall return.
Alaska has 100,000 glaciers, 39 mountain ranges, 17 National Parks and 80 volcanoes. (44 of which are active.)
Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the Lower 48 combined, with 30,000 plus miles.
Alaska’s Mount McKinley at 20, 320 feet is the tallest mountain in North America. On a clear day Mount McKinley is visible from downtown Anchorage 264 miles away.
Alaska’s Wrangell—St Elias National Park and Preserve is home to the 16 highest mountains in the U.S.
The 1964 Good Friday 9.2 earthquake in Steward was the strongest ever recorded in the U.S.
Alaska has more earthquakes than any other state.